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Why is the Basque Country more Violent than Catalunya?

In our last post, we examined why Catalans in Spain had developed a distinct Catalan identity, to the point of pushing for an independent state, while those in France had not. Looking at the wider Spanish scene one sees the failure to create a Spanish identity more broadly. This is true not simply in Catalunya but in Galicia and perhaps most obviously in the Basque country.

But this observation raises other interesting questions because there is obviously a huge difference between the nationalism of Catalunya and that of the Basque Country: the former is not violent while the latter is. What could explain this?

Exactly this issue was addressed by political scientist David Laitin in his paper “National Revivals and Violence”. Laitin argued that in the Basque country, the nationalist movement ETA was very successful at tapping into local social capital and recruiting young men from small towns based on mountain-climbing clubs, called mendigoitzale, or youth gangs, or cuadrillas. In contrast Catalunya lacked these types of social groups and social capital. (This is related to the idea that social capital can be used for good or ill purposes, so its political implications are much more subtle than what one might at first conjecture, as we discussed in this post a while ago).

Laitin argues that, in the Basque country, small town life was dominated by patron-client ties to political parties and that economic groups, like trade unions were much more important. This provided a social base for political parties that were much more inclined to negotiate than fight.

Yet Laitin also argues that these different social structures only made recruitment easier in the Basque country, and they also leaned more towards violence in the sense that ETA, based on local social capital, did not have simple and effective channels of communication with Madrid, which could have facilitated negotiation (unlike the situation in Catalunya).

Paradoxically, what further precipitated violence was that it was “more costly” for people in the Basque country to become Basque nationalists, particularly from a linguistic point of view. Basque is a non-Indo European language and completely different from Spanish, while Catalan is very close. Hence in the Basque case it was more difficult to get local people to become nationalistic without using violence to ‘encourage’ them. In Catalunya it was much easier to speak Catalan, and moreover people probably also expected others to switch to speaking Catalan, something that was much less likely with Basque.

Laitin uses this language example as a bit of a metaphor for the fact that being Basque was harder than being Catalan, which meant that those trying to promote Basque nationalism were more prone to resort to violence.

The last piece of Laitin’s argument is more idiosyncratic. He also argues that early successes were important in sustaining the violent strategy of ETA. ETA commandos assassinated Luis Carrero Blanco, the Spanish Prime Minister and heir apparent to Franco and ETA membership quickly doubled in its wake. The execution of two ETA prisoners in 1975 yielded a general strike and turned the victims into martyrs, further boosting support for ETA. 

In the end Laitin’s analysis blends structural factors, the different nature of social capital, the different cost of being Basque, with idiosyncratic shocks which allowed particular violent strategies to consolidate themselves and appear successful.


What’s the Problem with (Spanish) Catalunya?

Most of the research by economists on the state has focused on a quite narrow subset of things the state does. For example, Daron’s paper “Politics and Economics in Weak and Strong States” on the ability to raise taxes as the key dimension of whether a state was weak or strong. This was subsequently a key theme in the 2011 book Pillars of Prosperity by Tim Besley and Torsten Persson who focused on the development of fiscal systems to raise taxes and legal institutions to efficiently enforce contracts.

In our work with Rafael Santos on Colombia, “Monopoly of Violence: Evidence from Columbia, we focused on the creation of a monopoly of violence. (We will also soon report on some other new work of ours on the economic consequences of state capacity and state building).

But all of this research ignores one of the most fundamental things that modern states do — to create a national identity eliminating alternative identities.

One of the reasons, for example, that modern Tunisia is so different from neighboring Libya is that after independence the first president, Habib Bourguiba, invested heavily in creating a national identity. Instead, the rulers of Libya, such as Muammar Gaddafi, exploited and exacerbated different identities as a way to stay in power.

Modern states obviously differ a lot in how successful they have been at creating national identities, with huge consequences, as the previous example shows (it is Libya, not Tunisia, that is tottering on the verge of civil war at the moment). This is even true within Europe, a place that we tend to think of as having very successful consolidated nation states. Take the case of Spain and France. Though some people in the southwest of France still speak Occitan and grumble about being controlled from Paris, the reality is that the French state did a very effective job at forging a national identity (the locus classicus on this process is the 1976 book Peasants into Frenchmen by Eugen Weber which we mentioned in an earlier post, where we discussed why the English had been so bad at obliterating the identity of the Scots – who may ungratefully declare independence this year).

In recent research Laia Balcells, a political science professor at Duke University, has investigated the differences between Catalans south of the Spanish border and those north. In her paper “Mass Schooling and Catalan Nationalism”, she points out that Catalunya was split between France and Spain by a treaty in 1659. The Catalans had a distinct history with their own language yet the extent to which people identify as Catalan today differs greatly north and south of the border.

In Spanish Catalonia, Balcells shows that Catalan is the main language of communication between members of the family for 37% of the population; also, 7% say that Catalan is not the only language, but that it is more usual than Spanish.

In French Catalonia, in contrast, only 0.5% of the population speaks Catalan within the family: French is the main language in family communications for 87.6% of the population. This use of language is one way of seeing the different facts about identity.

The question then is this: why is there this divergence with Catalans in Spain currently demanding a referendum on becoming an independent country while nothing of the sort is taking place in France?

At some loose level this is obviously connected with what Eugene Weber was writing about. The French created a very effective top down state and socialized everyone into being French, particularly through the educational system where French was the only language which could be used.

Balcells does not dispute this claim but makes a more subtle argument. She puts it in the context of “nationalistic revivals” which take place in three phrases:

  1. Phase A which she calls “scholarly interest” led by intellectuals who discover and celebrate some lost or repressed identity
  2. Phase B which she describes as “patriotic agitation” where people become much more aware of the issues and more general nationalists sentiments surface;
  3. Phase C, finally, is the “rise of a mass movement” where collective action for national recognition and even independence takes place.

Balcells’ argument is that what is critical is the interaction between these social dynamics and what she calls, following the terminology of political scientist Keith Darden, a “scholastic revolution”. This corresponds to the first generation of people to receive mass education and when a community first shifts from an oral to a literate mass culture. The important point about France was that the strong state was around at the time of the scholastic revolution that meant that Catalan nationalistic sentiments got no air time in school.

In Spain, where the central state had not effectively exerted itself in the periphery, mass schooling arrived at just the moment when Phase B was in full flow. In consequence the state could not control the teaching of Catalan nationalism in school. Hence the first generation of people who received schooling was socialized into being highly sympathetic to the cause of Catalan nationalism. In Darden’s view the “scholastic revolution” is a “critical juncture” in identity formation that then massively persists over time even in the face of efforts to repress it. Balcells shows this is precisely what happened in Catalonia during the dictatorship of Franco.

The critical factor causing the divergence between the north and south of the French-Spain border in terms of Catalan nationalism was that the Spanish state was weak at exactly the wrong time — when the scholastic revolution interacted with a wave of patriotic agitation.


The Lack of Political Consolidation in Bali: The Benefits of Non-Weberianess?

One thing is evident from both Geertz’s work and Schulte Nordholt’s book The Spell of Power: A History of Balinese Politics 1650-1940, which we discussed in our previous post: Balinese states endlessly fought each other from the 18th century right down to annexation by the Dutch in the early 20th century.

Mengwi were at the brink of annihilation at the hands of the Dutch in 1891 (as they did earlier in 1823 when, somehow surreptitiously, the ruling dynasty managed to bounce back). Faced with the threat of annihilation,  the dominant theory in social science, espoused in  Charles Tilly’s Coercion, Capital and European States , suggests that the Balinese polities ought to have developed much more effective states in defense. But they did not.

As Schulte Nordholt notes (p. 331)

A history of two centuries did not provide the Mengwi dynasty with a state, because the fragmented nature of the political system was too stubborn to adapt to permanent centralized control.

The truth of the matter is that all polities fight wars, and some centralize while others do not.

Looking at centralized ones and observing that they fight wars, therefore warfare creates states does not seem very sensible empirically — hugely popular do it may be in social science especially in political science.

Schulte Nordholt doesn’t elaborate on “the fragmented nature of the political system”.

One important idea implicit in his account is one we will come back to at a later point when we talk about some new work of ours: trying to consolidate power is risky.

Schulte Nordholt, in particular, suggests (p. 333) 

expansion was easier than consolidation; growing power of a royal centre went hand in hand with increasing tension with various satellites, which led to violent confrontations threatening the continuity of the negara.

But when you read his book, you also get the idea that the very fluid and flexible relationships between a Rajah and the large lords in his territory might have had some advantages.

For someone looking at this from a Weberian mode, the Balinese states look like failures. The Rajah of Mengwi never dominated the regional lords and never had a monopoly of violence. But after the military defeats and occupations that led to the collapse of the state in 1823, these fluid informal relationships were quite easy to reconstruct, perhaps more easy than a Weberian state based on more formal rules. Indeed, Schulte Nordholt gives quite a few examples where the Rajah of Mengwi militarily conquered regional lords and could have tried to integrate them in a different way into the state but did not. Ultimately then, Mengwi was not a Theater state but neither was it a Weberian state. Instead it was a different type of state based on a different type of politics.

That this type of informal organization might be more enduring, or perhaps more robust with respect to certain shocks or challenges, is quite plausible to us and probably has wider application than in Bali.

Consider an apparently very different but we think related example. In most part of rural Colombia people do not have proper written titles to their land. Instead they have informal titles; everyone knows that Daron owns the land between the river and the mountain because his father bought it from James’s father in 1940. He has no written legal title, but everyone in the local community knows it is his land and respects that.

Now imagine some paramilitaries turn up with guns. If you have a written title, it is easy for them to put a gun to your head and say “sell me this land for $1 per hectare” and then they have the title. You can’t do anything like that with an informal title. So perhaps, counter-intuitively, in some situations an informal title may be more secure than a formal one.


Interrogating the Theatre State

In an earlier post , we outlined Clifford Geertz’s theory of the Theatre State in 19th-century Bali. Put simply, Geertz argued that the state was not about power and extraction it was about symbols and theatrics.

But all states are heavily into theatrics and into tactics that justify and legitimize rule. The British state loves theatrics, royal weddings, crimson velvet ropes and ermine capes, and of course photo opportunities on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with guards clad in red with bearskin hats. If you get invited to tea in the garden for some cucumber sandwiches with a member of the royal family or even if you just make it to the House of Lords, all of that theatrics will be quite memorable.

So is it any different than in 19th-century Bali?

Geertz essentially claimed that it was different. Bali’s state and rulers were divorced from society and floated above it. That theatrics was all there was.

An interesting story. But according to historical anthropologist Henk Schulte Nordholt, it may have been just that. A story.

Schulte Nordholt, in his book The Spell of Power: A History of Balinese Politics 1650-1940, argues that Geertz got it largely wrong.

The book provides a history of Mengwi, one of the historical states of Bali, which emerged in the 18th century. The evidence that Schulte Nordholt produces is inconsistent with the image of Balinese states that Geertz portrayed.

Schulte Nordholt starts by posing some important questions. He asks:

the `power’ that upheld the splendor of the theatre state remains an enigma: from where does it emanate, how is it organized, who controls it? (p. 7)

He answers it simply (p. 7):

the more successful of the Balinese rulers were anything but anonymous objects of ritual; they were clearly leaders who survived by commanding the respect of those around them.

Moreover, rather than floating over a self-organizing society, the Negara was heavily involved in it.

Take the salient issue of irrigation. Schulte Nordholt shows that the rise of the Mengwi state coincided with a large extension of irrigation in the area. Schulte Nordholt described this as (pp. 55, 56)

The irrigation order, then, can be understood only in connection with the royal hierarchy … the Mengwi dynasty, was directly engaged in the building of the larger irrigation systems. One may deduce from this that the rise of the Mengwi dynasty went hand in hand with a sizeable expansion of irrigated sawah fields in the region.

It is certainly true that, as Geertz was keen to argue, irrigation in itself did not give rise to large autocratic bureaucratized states in Bali. But his characterization of the relationship between the irrigation societies and the state seems to have been incorrect.

This wasn’t the only thing that Geertz got wrong, according to Schulte Nordholt. 

One important case is the nature of landholding by people and the extent to which the state exercised authority over it. He writes (p. 60):

On this point Geertz presents a contrasting view, writing that in pre-colonial southern Bali there was no ‘systematic congruence … between the structure of political authority, the structure of land tenure, and the distribution of land tenancy’. All the data I was able to gather during my fieldwork, however, indicate the opposite.

In the end the argument of Schulte Nordholt is that Balinese polities had very weak states. The dynasty at the center of Mengwi never controlled the peripheral areas of the state which was ruled by independent lords with their own private armies. Power was continually in flux and negotiated. He argues (p. 130):

These data … allow us to conclude that the Mengwi dynasty’s grip on the Negara was incomplete and unstable. The royal center lacked a bureaucratic apparatus capable of properly controlling the available manpower and effectively insisting on its share of the agricultural surplus. The center depended greatly on countless vertical relationships in which commoner loyalty was a fairly expensive commodity.

A good one-sentence version of his non-Geertzian argument is (p. 114)

ritual alone doth not a ruler make

How did Geertz get it all so wrong? Schulte Nordholt doesn’t dwell on this, but his analysis suggests a possible explanation.

When the Dutch took over all of Bali between 1906 and 1908 they had to come up with a way of administering it. They brought with them a stylized view of Balinese society that was seriously erroneous. It was based on the idea that the monarchies and aristocracies were largely alien invaders from Java ruling over autonomous ‘village republics’ of stoic Balinese peasants. The Dutch acted to put this vision into action, largely stripping the old state aristocracies of power and replacing them with appointees, often commoners. They also decentralized instruments of control to the village level – where they thought they belonged. In 1938 they relented and re-instated the monarchies, although not that of Mengwi but almost as parodies of their original selves.

In Schulte Nordholt’s telling (p. 334):

The ultimate result of this was that ‘restored’ old dynasties put a Balinese face on colonial rule. If the term ‘theatre state’ is to be applied to Bali, then the ‘restored kings’ of the 1930s fit the bill.

Thus many of the features that Geertz, researching in the 1950s and afterwards, had seen as being characteristics of traditional Balinese society were in fact figments of colonial rule.

This all suggests that we don’t need a separate theory of why the state was an entirely different animal in Bali than everywhere else. But we might still need an explanation for why all states love theatrics.


Development in Tabanan, Bali

In our last post, we discussed how Clifford Geertz used the idea of the Bazaar economy to characterize the economic problems of Modjokuto Java.

Geertz noted that the erosion of traditional society had created a “Catch-22” type of situation where it allowed for the emergence of “economic man and woman” but simultaneously eroded the basis for generalized trust. Thus, though it facilitated some types of economic relationships, these were intrinsically limited in scale.

But things were different in Tabanan.

In Geertz’s words:

Tabanan’s aristocratic-entrepreneur faces nothing resembling the entrenched, resourceful, and bitterly antagonistic Chinese Business community with which Modjokutu’s former peddlers must contend.

In fact:

Tabanan’s traditional ruling family – about 6 percent of its population – overwhelmingly dominates the nascent modern economy of the town.

And Geertz noted that the aristocracy of Tabanan consciously saw themselves as

shifting the material basis of [their families] eminence from land ownership and political power to commerce and industry, as maintaining an old ascendancy in a new society. (p. 119)

Their strategy to do this was explicitly to exploit the traditional social structures over which they had a lot of control:

it is on the basis of this type of pluralistic collectivism – in such marked contrast to the hyper-individuated, person-to-person bazaar pattern with which Modjokuto’s would-be firm builders must cope – that the aristocratic entrepreneurs of Tabanan must base their efforts after innovation, reforms and economic growth. (p. 99)

In Tabanan, the aristocracy used the traditional social structure to their economic advantage. In one firm (a tire capping factory) all “fourteen men, all traditional commoner descendants of the lord, work in the factory” (p. 111). In another (a bus line) “this enterprise obviously rests on concepts of group loyalty and traditional leadership which grow directly out of rural social organization and which are wholly lacking in the bazaar economy” (p. 116).

But just as the bazaar economy was limited, so was that of Tabanan.

Geertz state that this is:

Tabanan’s firms can become easily politicized in modern terms and this is – at least in a democratic state – extremely dysfunctional to further growth.

This was because they 

had a tendency to behave uneconomically because of the “social welfare” pressures of its members who, for the most part, are not basically growth minded. (p. 123)

So although the use of traditional social structures allowed Tabanan princes to build firms that the peddlers of Modjokuto could not, at the same time these social structures were in many ways inimical to profit maximization because they built in social norms of redistribution which impeded the incentives of the princes to build such organizations.

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